|Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #124:
Foiling the Information Age, Part One
by Shannon Appelcline
June 26, 2003 - I believe that the pundits are right, and we're now truly living in The Information Age. Compare it to just two centuries ago, and the advances are amazing. Back in those days, hand-carried messages were still the order of the day.
Slowly, there were advances, such as the long-distance telegraph (Samuel Morse, 1843) and the telephone (Andrew Bell, 1876), but until even very recent times communication of information over distance remained expensive, and thus mainly the purview of the rich.
It's really amazing how much things have changed in the last ten years, primarily due to the boom of the Internet, but also due to the increasing ubiquity of cell phones. We've invented new technologies, made communication cheaper, and also made it possible for individuals to make information permanently available to others. In doing so we've also changed business models, making these new forms of communication available for flat-rates rather than the old, charge-by-the-minute models.
This ease of transmitting information to arbitrary individuals across the globe is clearly the heart of online games. But, it also represents a real challenge because the instant transmission of information across the globe can notably upset the old models of game design.
This week, I want to set up the core problem of The Information Age, while next week I plan to start talking about solutions.
Designing Games the Old Way
Modern MMORPGs ultimately trace their roots to the original Adventure game. Here you wandered around an ancient and Colossal Cave, figuring out maps, finding items, and defeating opponents.
The game was full of puzzles (and we'll turn the spoiler alert fully on here), such as: how did you drive off the snake? (with a canary) and how did you kill the dragon (with your bare hands. Really? Yes.). Eventually, by solving all the puzzles, picking up all the items, and mapping all the passages, you completed the game.
Most single-player adventure games are still solidly in this model, with perhaps a higher emphasis on defeating monsters than the original games had. MMORPGs up the emphasis on fighting monsters even more, so that it becomes the main point of most games, but the old ideas of puzzles and secrets are still there.
You still need to map out the miles and miles of dungeons and wilderness in your favorite MMORPG. There still might be levers that you can pull and secret rocks that you can push. NPCs might respond to certain secret phrases and the use of a specific item in a specific locale might open up new areas of exploration for you.
These puzzles and secrets aren't as important as they used to be, but they're still darned important, and in the Age of Information that can be a real problem.
Methods of Information Transmission
Not too long after adventure games really hit it big, hint books started to appear. Infocom might have released the first, putting out a book for each of their games. These books came with little magic highlighting pens so that you'd never accidently see hint information that you didn't want to. The books also broke hints down into several levels, so that if you highlighted a low-level hint for a problem, you might reveal a clue or a riddle pertaining to the problem, while if you revealed the highest level hint, you'd get a command by command description of what you needed to do. Later, other publishers put out entire books of hints which, chapter by chapter, revealed the secrets of all of the then popular adventure games.
These hint books were my first experience with what I now call out-of-band communication, meaning communication conducted outside of a game which reveals information inside of a game. It's a very pertinent problem for any game designer that wants to include any sort of puzzle or adventure in his game, and in fact one of my oldest notes on an article idea for this column describes this question precisely. Based on a query from Jeff Crook, who was designing Qigung for us before his work authoring books really took off, I wrote: "How do you restrict a character's IC actions to not allow things based on OOC knowledge?"
And the answer is very, very difficult in this Age of Information.
When you design a puzzle into an online game, you can generally expect one, maybe two people to "solve" it before the answer is put up on a web site and published to the entire world. For example, within a few months of The Steps being added to The Eternal City, this website was set up. It has meticulous maps of the area, notes on special skills, info on merchants in the area, and more.
But, players in your online game will do more than just figure out your puzzles. If you have enough players, there will also be some who will spend countless hours figuring out exactly how your systems work, and then reveal those details, opening any holes up to abuse.
Finally, players may use out-of-band communication to give themselves an unfair advantage over other players in-game. Are you involved in a PvP game where you and some friends are stalking other players through the streets? A Yahoo! Communicator on the side might help you triangulate upon a foe that much faster.
Perhaps equally troublesome for secrets in a game is in-band communication, which is to say communication within a game. If your quest/adventure/puzzle is always the same (and it probably will be, as I've discussed as far back as Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #26, The Dynamic Dilemma), then you'll have the problem of the salty old vet telling the newbie player, "Sure, just go into the Awful Caverns of Doom, and then go n,n,e,s,e,n,n,e,e,n,n,n,w,nw,u and you'll avoid all the traps".
Technically, you might classify out-of-band communication as cheating (though most of us game designers know it's so far outside of our control that there's no point), but what can you do about a player talking to another game in-game, like he should be able to, but at the same time revealing your precious secrets?
A Strategic Sidebar
Ever so briefly I'd like to mention that I touched upon this topic from a totally different perspective not too long ago, in Trials Triumphs & Trivialities #112, Designing Strategy: Hidden Information. There, I reveled in the idea of being able to hide information from players, and how good the computer is at doing so.
My arguments in that columns stand... for short-term game, which is the category that many strategy games fall into. If you had a short-term roleplaying game (such as a LARP, or what we call here at Skotos a Stage), it'd be very viable to hide away information, and not worry too much about it being spread by out-of-band communication, because by the time it had been, your game would be over.
Hidden information also tends to work in strategy games, because the secrets tend to be different every time, because individual players are tending to create the information themselves (such as where you hide your flag in Stratego), an option that it so happens is also available to us here, as I'll discuss in weeks to come.
To a certain extent you can consider that "hidden information" article and this new series a diptych. First I discussed how (and why) to hide information, and now I'll discuss some techniques for keeping it hidden.
And with that, I'm going to sign off for the week, leaving the question of how you control out-of-band communication and/or keep the puzzles and other hidden information in your game unanswered.
I do have a number of possible answers which I plan to explore in the weeks to come. Broadly, they fall into three categories: making hidden information dynamic; controlling information communication; and changing the value of hidden information. We'll get to each of those in turn, but in the meantime I'd love to hear your own thoughts in the forums on the problem as well.
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